Intimacy and Privacy in a Public Age

FullSizeRenderLately, I’ve been reading the diaries of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn to help create an authentic world for the Restoration drama I’m working on for Serial Box. (It is so much fun! You’re going to love this series!)

Reading the diaries makes me aware of my own diary habit. I’ve been keeping a journal since the fourth grade. The first one was blue, with a lock and key, and I wrote sporadically, always telling the absolute truth, no matter how boring, and most of my life was pretty boring–or so I thought. When I look back, it is surprising how much detail I managed to capture in those looping cursive letters. “Today I went to Grandma’s house. Merry and I played with Anne. She is going to have puppies,” I wrote, and I remember the husky who had such a cheerful smile. I remember the puppies tumbling over my lap.

Just as I remember my life, Pepys creates the world of his times in daily, ordinary details. The days and days of rain that ended up flooding his main floor–and gives me the detail of a dreary stretch of weeks when the Portuguese queen had just arrived in England and lends atmosphere.

Some might say that blogs and social media are creating the same sort of record of our lives, and it is partially true. But social media tends to be fragmented and scattered, often a recounting of things others liked or didn’t like, and details out of context–a meal eaten in a restaurant you will never visit, the new chair of someone you’ve never met.

Journals and diaries contain the context of the diarist and her times, her viewpoint, a record of opinions as they rise and fall and twist. Journals are more powerful because they are deeply personal. They’re not meant to be art or even to be shared–and therein lies the pleasure. They are private, and that means the writer is entirely free.

The rules of my journals have been fluid, but fairly consistent. I don’t have to write every day, though I like to see at least one or two a week at a minimum. There is no attempt to write well, particularly–I’m not writing for others in those pages, only myself. I never embroider the facts, but that doesn’t mean they are necessarily an accurate record. I only have my own viewpoint, after all. I can only write my own interpretation of events. We’ve had to be aware, in our writing of Fierce Artifice, of the fact of Pepys’ crush on Barbara Villiers. It colors every paragraph he writes about her. He also hears a lot in gossipy sessions at the local pub and interprets the tidbits of fact in his own way. But it is his accurate record of his own thoughts.

That’s my goal, too. Showing up. Writing “In the moment….” when I’m getting too far off track.  Sometimes I write only on the computer. Sometimes in notebooks, by hand. Sometimes, often when I’ve gone through a difficult period, I’ve binged on fancy, beautiful journals and written endless, repetitive journals in them. They’re not terribly readable, those particular ones–they are mainly therapy, me writing my way to the center of something.  And like thereapy, I often write my way to truth, as when I found myself writing, “How many times will I write this exact same journal before I actually make a change?”

And then I made a change.

Curing the Crankies

I am a grouch this morning. There’s no other word for it. I didn’t sleep well because my knee was hurting and I have this restless leg thing happening after the surgery that’s quite annoying, and I don’t FEEL like doing my work, but there’s a lot piling up and it needs to be tackled.

Also, there are about 27 jillion errands that must be run. My mail has gone missing in this weird little Twilight IMG_7361Zone transfer of addresses and I can’t seem to get it straightened out, so my poor daughter in law has to keep forwarding it to me. Then it gets sent back to her. Rinse and repeat. There’s a box with books for my eldest son that’s been sitting here since Christmas. I spent the weekend running around doing fun things, but then I got super tired and haven’t recovered. Yesterday I forced myself to go swim because I need to get my aerobic capacity back after six months of doing almost nothing to take care of that. (Also, my core strength is not what I’d like and that needs work, too.)

I’m still healing from getting my legs chopped in half then put back together again, and it’s a long road. It’s a good road, but like any long journey, there are times you stop, weary of the same landscape, wish for rescue by helicopter. There’s no helicopter here. Just me and my precious body, on the road toward feeling better.

This morning, I should be writing, but I can tell you right now that’s probably not going to happen. I’m tired and resentful of life roaring back at me so hard, and I’m not quite ready to leap in with such intensity. Because I am a writer and I set my own hours, I do have a certain amount of freedom to step back.

Instead of coming into my office to write, as I planned, I moved things around. The new bottle of gesso I bought last Friday found its way into my hand and I found a brush in the other and I glossed some paper with it, just to play. Some little something started to breathe in the midst of all that irritability. As the paper dries, I pull out a photo of a tomato that I want to paint, and look for the right paper, the right size and weight, and I’m starting to draw. Later, I’ll add a little bit to the small journal of watercolor pages that seems to be a long, long love letter to my darling girl. I miss her terribly, and this is helping. Last week, we had a long, rambling, cheerful chat via Facetime, the first time she’s been really engaged, and she didn’t want me to “leave her house,” and showed me thing and blew raspberries and laughed when I kissed her. At one point, she said, “Nana’s stuck inside the iPad,” which has been haunting me slightly ever since.

All of this inner drama is why I haven’t been writing blogs as I promised. This morning I realized that is dishonest. I’m not always cheerful—far from it, actually. My life doesn’t always flow smoothly, and things show up in clusters—the urgent need to replace my knees, my parents’ ill health the past year, my beloved granddaughter and her wonderful parents moving 800 miles away—and I struggle to keep an upbeat attitude.

I have no wisdom today except that I’m going to take some pleasure in this little cabinet I bought to keep art supplies more orderly:

I’m 1454626_819401144817143_7649465128040458001_ngoing to paint and write something on those gessoed pages. I’m going to listen to music and see if it will speak to me about this book, and I will take a long nap. I am tired. I am healing. I am human. That is what I need today.

What do you do to cure the grouchies? 


Letters to my new writer self

Dear New, Young, Passionate, Painfully Aspiring Writer Self:

I am looking at you with great tenderness. Your passion for your craft, your hunger for publication, your commitment to continue to try makes my heart swell with pride. It is not easy, what you’re doing, writing, or rather, writing with the full intent to publish.  It’s easy to write if you are doing it only for yourself.  It’s only a joy, then, a secret pleasure, a tattoo on your inner thigh that you share only with your most intimate associates.

Writing for publication is a much more dangerous and challenging undertaking.  It means risking your ego and your standing in the community. People don’t understand your desire, even those you expect to understand, like reader friends and your librarian. Oh, I know how you’ve learned to dread that question at gatherings. You say you are a writer and someone says with excitement, “Are you published?”  You have to say no, and watch their eyes dim and their attention stray.

But you will not always have to say no. If you stay the course, you will be published.  For now, you go ahead and claim the title of writer, because you are a writer. You write. You put in the hours of study and practice, over and over, whenever you can fit it in. You do it even though no one does particularly understand or even believe that you can ever break into the hallowed company of Authors.  I am so proud of you.  Keep it up.

A few other things that will help you stay the course: pay more attention to what you are doing right than what you are doing wrong. Time, reading, and practice will heal most of your flaws, but no one can do what you do as well as you do it, so stick with that. Polish it, explore it, love it.  That’s where your voice is, in the things you love and do well.

Keep reading a ton.  People tell you that writing will corrupt your process, but that’s how you came to writing in the first place, isn’t it? You read, more than anyone you know, always.  Keep doing that, and don’t just read in the areas where you write. Read everything—articles and essays and poems and books of fiction and non-fiction. Read crap and read classics. Read genre and read literary fiction. Just read. It teaches and guides new writers better than any other single thing.

Keep your eye on the prize. You’re going to keep trying on hats until you find the one that fits, and once you do, your life is going to change in such big ways that you will never believe it could be your life. You will eat a meal in New York City with an editor. You will see your book on the shelves of your local bookstore. You will get letters from readers who love your work more than any other writer out there. Honor her, that reader, with your will to stick with it.

One more thing: don’t be afraid of editors and agents. They are busy, but they are always looking for the writer they connect with, the one they can publish, the one they adore. Some of them, over time, will become your friends for life.  Some of them will only make you crazy, but this is the great secret: editors and agents are your equal. You are all a corner in the great triangle of publishing. Don’t be intimidated.

Finally, you are more powerful than you know. Have faith in yourself, and the work, and trust it to take you where you want to do.

Your older, wiser, more experienced self

Want to read more letters from other writers to their younger selves?  Check out

1-random-front  stoked_800  IMG_0222  echo_800  (click on covers to read more)

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The Age of Aquarius–a time of balance

Happily, the end of the world has not yet arrived, and we’re all here to begin the long awaited Age of Aquarius, which some say begins this year.  It is meant to be a time of spiritual growth for society, and to me, it  does feel like the dawn of a new age.  I’d like to think so.

I’m thinking about change and balance myself, and a few things have come together to insist that I begin to consider exactly what I want each day to contain, how I want to live, what changes I’d like to make.  In October and November, I was pulling my usual deadline marathon, finishing the new book, Flavor of a Blue Moon, which will be out in early 2014.  (Sorry, I know that will be a disappointment to some of you, but the truth is, it just took more time to research and write than some other books.  I think you’re going to fall in love with Lavender and Ginny and all the adventures they have.  In the meantime, I promise to have some novellas up this year, just for you.)

Back to the deadline marathon.  It was exhausting.  Way more exhausting than it ever has been.  By the time I emailed it to my editor and agent, I felt like a zombie, and looked like one, too: my eyes were bloodshot constantly, and my skin was the color of wax, to compliment the smeared-cinders look of the circles under my eyes.  The last week of the deadline, I realized that I had a sinus infection and dashed over to the local urgent care to get some antibiotics.

There I discovered that one reason I felt so crappy was that my  blood pressure, which I’d been trying to control with diet and exercise, had gone way too high, and my heart was murmuring and all sorts of alarms went off and I was hustled to this doctor and that and had tests and Serious Conversations and–well, the bottom line is,

Seeking motivation to exercise

In fifteen minutes, I am headed over to the gym to meet my trainer, Tabor.  I really like him.  He’s not quite thirty, very even tempered, and madly in love with his wife and hiking.  He’s an all around good guy and I do love how much stronger and fitter I am.

But all day, I’ve been dreading my appointment. I’ve been dreading most of them for the past few weeks. My energy is low–September was a lot of travel and teaching and I’m tired. I have a deadline of November 15 and the book is not at all where I want it to be.  I’m chaining myself to the computer so much that also forcing myself to go to the gym is really hard.

I have been seeing a trainer at least twice a week for more than a year now, since August 2011.  You’d think I’d be super buff and thin.  I’m not.  I have, however, stopped gaining (a gift of midlife) and have even dropped a very small amount of fat.  If I flex, you can see my muscles, my biceps and my quads and the ones that tickle me a lot: my back and chest.  This all makes me stronger.  I get that. It will help keep me from becoming a frail old woman.

I also gave up meat over a year ago, and I’m struggling a bit with that, which will go in another blog.

What I would really like to do is take a week off from everything.  No travel, no exercise, no writing or blogs, no heavy gardening, no major household repairs, nothing.  Just a week of puttering and playing, wandering into a book or a shop or off to lunch with a friend or to a movie.  Sleeping a lot. Reading a lot.  Doing nothing a lot.

Unfortunately, the book must be finished.  To finish it, I have to stay healthy and strong, and that means I go to the gym.  Even if it doesn’t make me thin.  Even if I often do not look forward to it. Even if it strains my willpower in other ways.

Do you have any tips? What do you do to get yourself moving when you don’t want to exercise? 

Adulthood and my personal commandments

I am pretty sure I’ve talked about Gretchen Rubin’s book, The Happiness Project before.  The book is upbeat, illuminating, and surprisingly practical.  One of the steps I love most is her approach to creating a map of living.  Each of us have a different set of goals, a dharma and purpose unlike that of anyone else.  It’s helpful to put that down in writing.

These are my 12 personal commandments, which are connected to the secrets of adulthood.  I used Rubin’s list as a model, but adapted them to me and my reality. Maybe you have a list of your own you’d like to share.

1. Be Barbara
This is taken directly from Rubin.  It reminds me to be ME, not some idealized version of me.  Or as my old Unity minister used to say, “I am God expressing as….Barbara.”  Which is an exhilarating thought, really.

2. I am 100% responsible for my own happiness

Never as easy as I think it will be.  For example, when I am driving and some rude driver cuts me off, how can I be happy?  But I can, as my friend Heather does, tell myself another story about the action.  Maybe that person has a sick child or is rushing to the beside of his best friend.

This also counts when I am irritated with some aspect of daily life or a person in my life….100% means all the time. The weird thing is, this particular secret carries a huge amount of relief.

 3. If I look good, I feel good.
This doesn’t mean trying to be botoxed and skinny.  It is to remind me that while it’s okay to wear yoga pants and my hair in a scrunchy while I’m working, I feel 10x better if I  get my hair cut on time and wear only clothes I really love.  It means putting on the nicer shirt and taking the time to do my hair before CR comes home.  Little stuff, that’s all.  (And this probably makes me sound like a slob, which would be impossible for a daughter of my mother.)

4. An Uncluttered Environment Leads to an Uncluttered Mind
Simple. I don’t have to have sparkling clean floors, but need to reduce visual clutter as much as possible.

 5. Exercise always helps
I need daily walks and fresh air and lots of hard, physical exercise.  I am grouchy without it.  If I’m cranky or overwhelmed or tired, I almost always need to get outside or go swimming or go work out.  The deeper the grumpiness, the more I need to do.

 6. Sleep Gives You A Clear Head

I am a morning person.  Like, obnoxiously so.  I like to wake up early and get going on the day.  That means I’m genuinely tired and ready to quit by 8 or 9.  Because I grew up with vampires, I sometimes feel sheepish about this and will often try to stay up until 11, like other people.  All this does is make me tired.  Going to bed with a good book at 9 is a great choice for me.

 7. Overindulging Always Has A Price
 Just what it says.  Too much sugar or wine, too many video games, too many cookies…and I don’t feel great.

8. Work and Meeting Goals Makes Me Happy
I am lucky enough to adore the work I do.  Sometimes, however, I can procrastinate myself into a corner and then I have to work too hard to be able to enjoy the process.  Much much better to set reasonable goals and show up every day to get the work done.  I feel so much better this way.

 9. Tracking My Progress Is An Effective Tool for Conscious Living
I am a born diarist, and seeing my day to day habits in black and white makes me aware of what habits and actions actually form the basis of my life.  That allows me to be accountable and to make changes if I so desire.

 10. Celebrating others makes me feel happy
Everyone likes to be noticed, honored, get presents and cards. 

11. Meditation is my way of listening to God
I like meditation, but I am surprised how often I’ll say to myself, “I don’t have time this morning.”  Making time makes a difference.

12. I am always practicing to be an elder
Our society revers youth, not elders, but we need our elders to guide and help lead.  To be the Wise Woman I hope to be one day, I have to learn what that means, and how to embrace it. That means listening to my elders instead of dismissing them.  It means seeking instruction and guidance.  It means practicing awareness of what I say and how I say it and how that influences others.

How about you? Can you think of some things you’d put on your list?  

The simple pleasure of tea

A reader wrote to me recently with these comments:

I just finished another of your books and I really enjoy them……In your stories the women drink a variety of teas…..I’d like to find a good breakfast tea to replace coffee in the morning, is there one that you would recommend? So many choices on the shelves its confusing……

Although I didn’t realize the characters in my novels drink a lot of tea, it really is not surprising, since I am a serious tea drinker. Always have been. When the Englishman entered my life, that particular habit found a cozy spot and settled in for good.  We always drink tea first thing in the morning, and when together mid-afternoon will often indulge another.  It’s easy and comforting and reviving. If you, like the reader above, are overwhelmed when it comes to shopping for and preparing a good cup of tea, I am sharing the advice I sent in reply. Perhaps you’ll find it handy.

Dear Reader:

To replace coffee, the main thing to remember is that you want black tea. Not green or anything else.  And most coffee drinkers prefer to start with something not flavored, so go with straight black tea.

My #1 favorite breakfast tea is PG Tips, but you have to get the kind that is imported from England (the “English” tea sold in the US is made with different parts of the tea leaves and is not as flavorful). Unless you’re just insanely in love with tea, that’s a bit expensive.  Because Christopher Robin is British and must begin his day with a classic cup (two sugars and milk), we have his mother send boxes of it.  I also buy it at the English store (most towns have one).  Again, pretty expensive, but fun to try maybe.

To get started in the US, I’d suggest trying Twining’s English and Irish breakfast teas.  The trick is to get the water boiling and pour it over the teabag as soon as it stops boiling, then let it steep for a full five minutes.  The color is good after 1 minute, but the flavor is not really developed until five minutes.  Also important: don’t put cream in tea, only milk.  Add sugar as desired.
Do not let my beloved hear me say this, but I also think just plain Lipton’s is very good. It was what we drank as children and I still find it very good if the water is hot enough.  (The temperature of the water is what makes having a good cup in US restaurants so difficult. The water is almost never hot enough.)

Those are the best black teas.

For some other great things to try, here are a few:

Constant Comment, by Bigelow, the classic orange flavored tea.  Also try their Lemon Lift and Mint teas.

If you ever see Twining’s Blackberry tea for sale, grab it.  It’s one of the seasonal releases, and it’s absolutely delicious.

Caffeine free:
Celestial Seasonings have many different kinds.  Peppermint is nice after dinner.  I like Sleepytime when I’m having trouble sleeping.  Mandarin Orange Spice is nice, too.  You might choose a box of mixed flavors and see what you like.

One of the best teas in the world to me is Good Earth caffeine-free blend.  It’s strong and sweet without sugar, and has no caffeine, so I can drink it all morning while I’m writing.  It smells wonderful, too!

Now I’m off to put the kettle on. There’s a rain storm bearing down over the mountains and a nice cup of tea sounds like just the thing.  Do you have other favorite teas to recommend?  I know there are readers here who, like me, have to have the English blend. Raise your hands and be counted.

The anvil of holiday guilt

First: we’re working behind the scenes on the Barbara O’Neal and Barbara Samuel webpages, which should be up early next week. Lots of new features, better navigation…and of course, contests will be kicking off with the release of How to Bake a Perfect Life, coming December 21. Stay tuned!


Every year, I promise myself that I’m going to stay on track with my writing goals through the holidays.  Every year, just about this time, I realize I haven’t written a word in two (or three) weeks and feel that anvil of guilt fall out of the sky to crush me.  Every year.

For 22 years of book deadlines.

This year, as the season bore down on us, Christopher Robin suggested I might want to just recognize that I would not have as much time to work, and just call it a draw.  That seemed shocking. Sinful, even!  Everybody else works and gets things done.  Why shouldn’t I be able to do that, too?  My mom works 40 hours a week and bakes cookies and decorates her house and shops.  Why not me?

So, I soldiered on.  November was modestly productive until the end, when Thanksgiving arrived.  I hosted the feast at my house this year, my son came home from DC for four days, and my other son popped in and out the whole weekend. We played games (notably Arkadia) and ate and I stayed up late talking, watching Ian teach Gabrielle to fetch. It was wonderful.

But then I tried to climb back into my routines the following morning. After a week of non-stop activity, cleaning, cooking, laughing, talking, I admit I was very tired.  There was a sad thing that happened, far away and beyond any of my power to do anything about it, which layered atop my weariness and made Monday not very productive. Then I had to put things away. And this weekend there is a party we are hosting.  Next week is the countdown to a huge spiritual retreat I’m helping to lead, and the next week, my friend and I are going to Chimayo for a couple of days to put together our vision boards for the year.

Then, well, it’s almost Christmas.

The truth is, I have not written many pages in almost any December since I began this career. Other people physically leave the house or have to clock in with their computer–I don’t. Which means I like having the freedom to do a lot of baking, to get out to the gym and the shops when everyone else is working, to have the luxury of rearranging my life around the holidays I adore so that I can devote a lot of my attention to them, and try to make memories of peace and laughter and happiness for others around me.

Somehow, I make my deadlines, year after year.

So, I am off work until early January.  My collage is on the desk, nearly complete.  I have some lists of plot points I want to work on,

a glimpse of the collage for the new book, title undecided at the moment

some more backstory character events to dig up.  I can also do something my friend Christie does: write one sentence a day, just to keep my head in the book, so that the girls in the basement can keep working, building.  In January, I’ll get back to writing pages every day, as I have done every year for the past 22 years.

Gosh, that anvil was so heavy! And I was dropping it on my own head! Silly me.

Does anyone else set up impossible expectations? What can you do to lighten your load this season?

Elsewhere, a blog on walking

No one here will be surprised at this post that I wrote for  Writer Unboxed.   I knew some of you would enjoy reading it, but keep forgetting to post a link here.

The Writer’s Toolbox: Walking

One of the number one requirements of a commercial fiction career is that you must reliably produce good material, year in and year out. Reliable and good are not always an easy combination. To do it, a writer has to take care of her body, her mind, and her spirit.

Over the years, I’ve found many ways to do that, but the mainstay is walking. I walk every morning, and take long walks on weekends and evenings; I walk around the cities I visit when I travel. I’ve done a marathon and a half over two days (Avon walk) and twice now have walked over a hundred miles in the course of a week. Walking is my passion (which you might have guessed from the title of my blog, A Writer Afoot).

There is a long history of writers and walkers—Wordsworth is said to have walked 175,000 miles in his lifetime and Thoreau was given to 20 mile rambles through the forests and over the hills. Walking is done at human speed. It gives us time to see, to think, to ponder and wonder. It gently releases endorphins and keeps the joints fluid. Brenda Ueland wrote:

If you would continue to be alone for a long time, amblingly swinging your legs for many miles and living in the present, then you will be rewarded: thoughts, good ideas, plots for novels, longings, decisions, revelations will come to you

In other words: walking fills the well.

I spent the winter and spring writing a book that tested me, made me reach harder and higher than I ever have, and by the end of May, when I finished the last of the revisions and finally polished it to the place I wanted it to be, I was bone-dry. The girls in the basement crashed, refusing to give me one more word. Continue Reading »